Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Some Cold Hard Facts About Making Money Writing Fiction by Wendy Nelson Tokunaga


Back in the early and mid-parts of the 20th century it was actually possible for writers (usually men) to make a living and support their families by writing short stories and novels. Yes, writing short stories and novels—I’m not talking about newspaper reporters or journalists. Back then there was a demand for short fiction and there were many commercial magazines that published short stories and paid well for them. Obviously times have changed. There are very few commercial magazines that publish short stories now. Most of the markets for short fiction today are poorly funded literary journals that pay only in copies of the journal. And, furthermore, you usually have to pay a reading fee to submit a story. A few journals might pay around $800 - $1,000 for a story, but the days of making a living as a short story writer are long gone.

Very few people today make a living writing novels. This is anecdotal, of course, but most all of the novelists I know (and I’m talking about those who have been published by major presses) work at other jobs to make money. Or if they don’t work at other jobs, they have a spouse who supports them and the family or they have come into an inheritance or did well in the stock market. They do make some money from their novels, but it’s far from enough to support themselves, let alone a family. Novelists do exist who make a fine living from their books, but they are the exception rather than the rule. We all know who they are so there’s no need to mention names. These are the authors that our friends and family know about and assume that our success will be identical to theirs.

Here are 5 cold hard facts about making money from novels:

~ Many novelists get a very small advance when a publisher buys their book, if they get one at all.

~ Often, advances are not paid in full, but over time, so even if the amount is substantial, there is no big fat check.

~ Many, if not most, novels sell less than 1,000 copies.

~ Authors do not start collecting royalties on their novels until they earn out their advance.

~ If a novel sells less than 1,000 copies, it is unlikely that the author will earn out her advance.

What about self-publishing, you ask? Yes, with the new e-book models novelists can earn more money and have the capacity to earn attractive royalty rates. Again, as with traditional publishing, there are a few authors who have made a killing with self- publishing. And those who are already known and/or have regained the rights to their backlists of books can do well. But the majority of those who self-publish do not make enough money to support themselves without taking on other jobs or being married to salary-earning, supportive spouses.

Money had never entered into the equation for me in becoming a fiction writer. I remember giving one of my first readings for my debut novel. I was so excited to be published, something I had worked toward for many years. To even be in the position of having a reading at a bookstore and to know that there were some people who showed up who weren’t just my friends or relatives felt like such a wonderful accomplishment. I was over the moon. During the Q&A a gentleman asked me if I had put together a spreadsheet and calculated the time it took me to write my novel paired with the amount of the advance I’d received from the publisher in order to know how much I’d earned per hour. It took me a moment to even understand the question. I tried to explain how it wasn’t about the money, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He said he could probably make more money writing software so he wasn’t going to waste his time trying to write his great American novel.

And he shouldn’t. You should be writing your novel because you can’t not write it—not because you’re dreaming of fame and fortune. This, I think, is the most important cold hard fact about writing fiction and making money.


Wendy Nelson Tokunaga is the author of the novels, "Midori by Moonlight" and "Love in Translation" (both published by St. Martin's Press), and the e-book novels, "Falling Uphill" and "His Wife and Daughters," and e-book short story, “The Girl in the Tapestry.” She's also the author of the nonfiction e-book, "Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband." Her short story "Love Right on the Yesterday" appears in the anthology "Tomo," published by Stone Bridge Press, and her essay "Burning Up" is included in "Madonna and Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop." Wendy holds an MFA in Creative Writing from University of San Francisco and teaches for Stanford University's Online Writer's Studio Novel Certificate Program. She also does private manuscript consulting for novels and memoirs. Follow her on Twitter at @Wendy_Tokunaga, friend her on Facebook and visit her website at: www.WendyTokunaga.com




38 comments:

  1. This post is great. The cold facts put things in perspective for me. And I always need perspective. It is weird to think about the time versus money thing and that's why I don't even think about it. Head in the sand and fingers on the keyboard.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Ariella. Yes, it's good to have perspective and, yes, if you thought too hard about the time/money thing you'd go crazy!

      Delete
  2. This is a terrific post because it's not whiny, boo-hoo poor me. It's simply factual. And the ending is spot on ( I won't say "on the money) and uplifting. Write because you must.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Patricia! Yeah, no whining here (or whinging, as the Brits would say -- love that!).

      Delete
  3. Very informative? Off to tweet.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I didn't mean to have a question mark. Sorry

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  5. I think it was Samuel Johnson who said, "No one but a fool ever wrote except for money." Obviously, a lot of us are fools--or else fanatics. We write because we must. The money is a bonus.

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    Replies
    1. Love that quote! Yes, money is a bonus for sure.

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  6. Amen, and pass the chicken. Well, I'm hungry. My post is Friday so I won't say too much here in comments except thank you for being so honest! xoxo

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    Replies
    1. Looking forward to your post, Malena. Here's a wing. :-)

      Delete
  7. Yes, if we've not scared a few people away from writing who ought not to be doing it, we've not done our jobs well. Huzzah.

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  8. So true Wendy! If you don't love writing you shouldn't do it. Sure isn't going to make you rich! : )

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    Replies
    1. I'm always amazed by these would-be writers who have their priorities so skewed!

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    2. "Sure isn't going to make you rich."

      That's not true, some people make fortunes off of books or book series. The majority don't, but nothing worthwhile is ever easy. But I do agree, you write because you love it not because of the money.

      Delete
  9. "You should be writing your novel because you can’t not write it." Amen, Wendy!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Barbara, and thanks for the tweet quote too. :-)

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  10. Great post, Wendy. Most people think that if you have a book published, then you're rich. Aw, the innocence!

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  11. Girl, I was dying to read this blog, and it was totally on the money. Your post about 1,000 copies made me feel good (but I was lucky enough that Target picked my book as a summer read last year). I still didn't earn out my advance. my first novel came out through Shaye Aerheart (a division of Random House) and a week after its debut, that imprint was dissolved. Whoop Whoop! You can imagine all the love my book did NOT get. But I'm like you. I can't NOT write. It's my passion, my meditation, my realm, and my characters are amazing beings who sit down to dinner with me on holidays. Long winded as I am, I just wanted to say, "Great post." Thank you. And no, I have no spreadsheets either. Just lovingly working on this latest book. Thank you!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Michele. Totally on the money about not being about the money -- LOL! Sounds like you've been through the ringer, but what you describe isn't uncommon.

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  12. ha ha. And as John Gardner wrote in On Becoming a Novelist, and I paraphrase, If at all possible, fall in love with someone who makes enough money to support you. It will make life much easier.

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  13. I'm late! I'm here! Great post, Wendy. I particularly love the spread sheet portion. I'm married it a spread sheet kind of guy. Fortunately, he's wise enough never to have suggested measuring my effort vs my income!

    ReplyDelete
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  15. I think if you want to make money writing fiction, then do it. Don't give up.

    It is the dawn of the internet, meaning that is where everyone is. They want everything now.

    Adapt. Turn your novel into a flash fiction webseries, where readers have the options to donate to you or not. Turn it into a subscription based website, where subscribers pay a monthly fee.

    And if you really want to make a lot of money doing what you love find a platform that is affiliate based.

    Check out how my once novel, now flash fiction series acquires an income. http://www.futurebodystory.com

    ReplyDelete
  16. I think if you want to make money writing fiction, then do it. Don't give up.

    It is the dawn of the internet, meaning that is where everyone is. They want everything now.

    Adapt. Turn your novel into a flash fiction webseries, where readers have the options to donate to you or not. Turn it into a subscription based website, where subscribers pay a monthly fee.

    And if you really want to make a lot of money doing what you love find a platform that is affiliate based.

    Check out how my once novel, now flash fiction series acquires an income. http://www.futurebodystory.com

    ReplyDelete

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  19. I never understood that mentality. I love writing, but I love other things too. If I'm going to invest thousands of hours of free time mastering a skill, I expect some payoff. I had planned to make a living at it. If that's not possible, I'll do something else.

    I suspect that's the same mentality that treats writing as a god-given talent rather than a man-made skill. Stephen King and J.K. Rowling have something we don't, but it's not a bag full of fairy dust. It's stories people want to read.

    Entertainment is a service we provide. Validation is not a service our readers provide us. We may not be doctors or lawyers, but if we're good enough at what we do, we get payed for it. If we're not getting paid enough for it, people don't value it enough.

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